Friday, February 8, 2013

The Life of Riley's weird early years

Lionel Stander
When you think of The Life of Riley radio program, I'm sure that you, like me, think of William Bendix as Riley, Paula Winslowe as Peggy and Tommy Cook and Barbara Eiler as the two kids.

The show began in April of 1941.  It was a Saturday morning program, coming on at 10 AM and then later the time was changed to 11 AM.

Lionel Stander played the part of Riley - who then was known as J. Riley Farnsworth.  You might recognize his photo (left) as that fellow on the television show, Hart to Hart.

Having written all of the above, this The Life of Riley show had almost nothing to do with the show we are all more familiar with.  Though the two are lumped together because they have the same title, the less familiar Riley show only lasted about 6 months and it was no more.

There was something very familiar about the above though which made it's way to the more familiar Riley program.  J. Riley Farnsworth's wife was named Peggy - the same name of the Winslowe character.  And her father was the richest man in town, which is pretty much on par with the Winslowe character in the more familiar Riley version.

To my knowledge, there is no available audio of this less familiar program.

Barbara Eiler on the far right
The Riley program we are familiar with began in 1944.  The early days were strange.  For one thing, Chester Riley called his wife, "Mom."  This wasn't uncommon in 1940's.  But it's uncommon for The Life of Riley.

The daughter - we know her as "Babs" (Barbara) was not named Babs but rather, "Eloise" (sometimes they called her "Ellie.")  And of course, the girl who played her wasn't the familiar Barbara Eiler but the unfamiliar Sharon Douglas.

And Junior Riley wasn't the more familiar Tommy Cook but several actors (Conrad Binyon, Scotty Beckett, Jack Grimes, Bobby Ellis.)  Beckett is easily recognizable as he was a member of Our Gang.

Also in the cast was Uncle Baxter, who was played by veteran actor Hans Conried.  By April of 1944, Uncle Baxter was (thankfully) gone.  I never thought he added much of anything to the show, except dead weight.

If you listen to the available shows in order, you can hear Digby O'Dell grow into his part; it seems to get better each episode until he finally settles in the man we know.  Meanwhile, John Brown (who played several parts on the show, including O'Dell and a neighbor, Gillis) has a son whose name changes from something weird (I forget now what it is) to something weirder, "Egbert."  You might be surprised to know that Shirley Mitchell sometimes (not always) played his wife "Honeybee."

I don't want to leave out Dink Trout, who shows up in plenty of the available episodes.  He played Waldo "Oh My Aching Back!" Binny, a neighbor in the pre-Gillis days.


  1. Could have been wierder- Groucho was originally slated to play Riley but it was thought that audiences would not believe him as a family man. (And if you know about Groucho's life, his family probably didn't think of him as on either.) And Uncle Baxter? HATED him.

  2. Good point! Groucho's brother Gummo was the co-developer of the series.

  3. Really? I had no idea. That is really interesting!


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